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December 16, 2018

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Fundraising Volunteers

When to Say "No" to Volunteer Help

by Jim Berigan

As someone who is actively involved with a non-profit organization, I'm sure the thought of actually turning away people who want to help seems a little crazy. When all of us are so over-worked and over-stressed, we should welcome those who wish to make our loads lighter, right?

Well, let me answer that by saying that not all volunteer help is created equal. I know that this is a sensitive subject, so I want to stress that I greatly appreciate all those who have a heart to serve. In my time leading non-profits, however, I have learned that there are a couple of circumstances that require a guiding hand be used by the group's leader.

I believe that there are two major reasons to say "no" to volunteer help.

  1. The Over-Extended Volunteer.
  2. On more than one occasion, I found myself relying heavily on people who were entirely over-extended in their personal and/or professional lives. These people had the best of intentions and great hearts. They desperately wanted to help the school succeed. So, when no one else stepped forward to volunteer, they did.

    This is a precarious position if your over-taxed volunteer has a family emergency or gets sick or takes an unexpected vacation or has a husband who goes out of town for business. Suddenly, the school finds itself in a bind. Your volunteer has become incredibly stressed out and probably feels guilty about leaving the school in the lurch.

    It is very easy to rely on those same people who have reliably helped you in the past. You are busy yourself, and recruiting and training new volunteers further saps your time and energy. I have found myself ignoring warning signs, just because I needed a job handled smoothly and without my close attention. More often than not, this hasn't worked out so well for me…

    Although it is difficult to do so, I urge you to sincerely look at your volunteers' lives, as much as you are able, outside of the school setting. If you know that they are stretched very thin, don't put them in a position in which they could snap. If they insist, find a task that is very limited in its scope and time requirements. Instead of being on a planning committee, maybe this person could take tickets at the event, for instance. In the long run, you will be saving your volunteers and the school from a potentially very trying situation.

    And, after a while, your volunteers will pick up on your concern for them and appreciate it. This kind of a volunteer culture is more conducive to recruiting new help and keeping the folks already on board happy and rested.

  3. The Ill-Suited Volunteer.
  4. If you have ever spent time working for a non-profit organization, you know that sometimes you'll encounter a volunteer who loves to be involved, but just isn't that effective for the cause. Maybe they don't have a great work-ethic. Maybe they like to talk too much. Maybe they're just few sandwiches short of a picnic. Whatever the case, you know that they usually don't add very much to the project. Sometimes, they can even distract or have a negative impact.

    If you find yourself in this situation, you must call upon all the diplomacy and tact you can muster. You must find that delicate line between not hurting feelings and preserving your organization. Good luck.

    I have always been a big fan of the Judo philosophy, which encourages you to use the weight and momentum of your opponent in your own favor. I would suggest that this same tactic can be employed with the ill-suited volunteer.

    Instead of being overly blunt and just dismissing a person from a task, redirect them to something that is better suited for them, but which is also less critical for you. If your volunteer is an over-talker, perhaps she could be best used for telephone work. Get her very excited by how important this task is and how she would be a terrific asset on the phone bank. If your volunteer isn't a hard worker, maybe envelope stuffing would be a good fit.

    Remember that all volunteer work is important. It is our job as volunteer leaders to find the right fit for them and the right fit for the organization.

    If you absolutely can not find a suitable place for this particular person, you still must consider the overall goal of your group. Perhaps you would be able to find a way to defer their help for a future event. You can very politely tell this person that you need to not over-work any of your volunteer crew, and you have a big task coming up, so you'd like to save his energy for that event.

    I would be very careful not to just dismiss a person willing to help, even if he or she presents a challenge. It is possible that other, more productive volunteers wouldn't understand the overall picture and would therefore be offended to see you pushing help out the door. By re-assigning a person, you can present a much better case for saying "no".


As volunteer leaders, we should be grateful to everyone who wants to help our cause. So often, we lament the fact that so few people actually get involved. However, when we realize that a particular volunteer might not be prepared or suited to offer the quality help we require, we have to find a way to respectfully and effectively remove them from the mix.

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About the Author:

Jim Berigan has served as the principal for a Christian elementary school, as well as the associate director of a non-profit summer camp for boys. He has been involved at every level of fundraising, with experience conducting product sales, running golf outings, and planning auctions. He shares insights about fundraising on the Top School Fundraisers blog.

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